Why seven always beats nine (even without an official cat)

Reduction in the number of members for the Communist Party's standing committee likely to streamline decision-making process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 10:49am

Over the past six months, the South China Morning Post has repeatedly suggested that the line-up of the Chinese Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo standing committee will be cut from nine members to just seven at next month's party congress.

Writing in the paper on Monday, Australian-based academics Kerry Brown and David Goodman argued that such a reduction in numbers would be "a backward step".

"The complexity of governing contemporary China, and the huge burdens taken on by an already greatly overstretched elite, would give reason for an increase in the size of the standing committee, not its reduction," they argued, adding that a cut in numbers would be a "victory of short-term power politics over longer-term thinking about solutions for the sustainable deployment of power in China".

I'm not sure about that. While Brown and Goodman are certainly right that a reduction in standing committee numbers would be a step back, it is far from clear that it would be a bad thing for the effectiveness of the Communist Party's decision-making.

To see why, we need only refer to the definitive work on committee membership numbers, Cyril Parkinson's 1958 essay Directors and Councils or the Coefficient of Inefficiency.

In this miniature masterpiece, Parkinson, a professor at the University of Singapore, argued convincingly that the decision-making ability of any governing committee is inversely proportional to its size.

"The ideal size of a cabinet council usually appears - to comitologists, historians, and even to the people who appoint cabinets - to be five," he wrote.

Five members, he argued, can act with competence, secrecy and speed. Among the five, there is likely to be an expert in each of finance, foreign affairs, defence and law. "The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman."

However, as Parkinson noted, cabinets tend rapidly to increase in size in response to calls for more specialist knowledge, first to seven members, then to nine,

"In a cabinet of nine," he wrote, "policy is made by three, information supplied by two, and financial warning uttered by one. With the neutral chairman, that makes seven, the other two appearing at first glance to be merely ornamental."

Once a cabinet has started growing, it seldom stops, as more and more members are brought in "because of their nuisance value if excluded" and to conciliate powerful external factions. Before long the numbers exceed 20 and the committee loses effectiveness as a decision-making body, breaking up into unofficial and secretive sub-groups in which the real business of politics gets transacted.

As an example of this process, Parkinson cited successive cabinet bodies in Britain. First there was the House of Lords, whose numbers have grown from about 20 when first recorded in medieval times to 825 today.

That body was superseded by the Privy Council, originally numbering nine, today with 598 members. Finally we have the cabinet itself, which started with five members in 1740 and thereafter grew steadily.

In an attempt to halt this trend, in 1975, the membership was limited by law to 23. The attempt was ineffective. Today, meetings include 32 attendees of ministerial rank and numerous officials, not including the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, Downing Street's official cat (a post, incidentally, that was included in last month's government reshuffle).

Given the proliferation of regular cabinet members, it should be no surprise that in times of national emergency Britain's decision-making tends to devolve to a "war cabinet" usually comprising just five.

Similarly, with the full line-up of China's official cabinet, the State Council, standing at 35 including ministerial members, it should be no surprise that real power resides with the smaller body, the Communist Party's Politburo standing committee.

What is surprising, however, given Parkinson's inflationary trend, is that party leaders are now proposing to reduce that body's membership numbers.

As Brown and Goodman note, this is indeed a retrogressive step. But for better or worse, it is likely to streamline the decision-making process, even without a cat at the table.

Many thanks to the reader who alerted me to the shameful error in yesterday's Monitor.

As he pointed out, Ericsson is indeed a Swedish company, and not, as I asserted, Swiss.

I can only plead a long-standing case of word-blindness when it comes to this particular pair of adjectives.

I meant Swedish, wrote Swiss, and then read the word back to myself as Swedish.

I apologise unreservedly to any Swedes or Swiss I may have offended and earnestly assure them that although from time to time I may mix up the two words, I have never once confused their two very distinct, and distinguished, nationalities.